Sunday, January 12, 2014

SFWA World Building Questions

I’ve stumbled onto this particular site a few times over the years, typically anytime someone on the Absolute Write forums starts asking about worldbuilding; it’s a staple link that always gets brought up.  Albeit not an exhaustive link, it can truly be a daunting link for authors just starting out and looking for a place to start.  It truly does ask a daunting amount of questions, not all of which apply, which may or may not initially occur.  That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to review the list and see how it applies to my fantasy ms, as well as the remainder of the Ochra series books.
A review of these questions may seem like an exercise in futility; I mean, after one novel written, you’d think these questions would have been answered already, right?  More to the point, it’s a chance to do some worldbuilding detail-work that may have gone unnoticed, yet it also provides the opportunity to draw on your second- and third-order effect answers and develop story ideas.  Case in point: in the Ochra series, the J’in Empire is a caste society.  Mages/sorcerers, which are considered samurai caste, were born with their abilities, able to tap into a sub-current of energy they use to shape their spells.  Not everyone born with the ability develops the potential to tap into this energy.  If they are born into the ability though, what if a peasant-class child was born with this spark?  This led to the development of a secondary character, a samurai bounty hunter of sorts that sniffs out these waifs born with the ability.  This leads to other questions:  how does he sniff them out?  What does he do when he finds one?  Does he pay the family for the child?  If so, does this create a sort of lottery system?  How would that impact the society?  How would that be interpreted by the samurai?
Part One, The World
The Basics:  Largely an Earth-like world, most questions like gravity, basic flora and fauna and the like are already assumed to be the same (no need to recreate a pine tree, or call a maple something new).  Then we get into the specifics of races.  An epic fantasy, the Ochra series includes a gamut of other races like elves, dwarves, dragons, ratmen, orcs, goblins, et cetera.  The realms of Ihr’Vessen are currently in a post-cataclysmic era, the two pantheons of gods having fought a war that was finally brought to an end.  The elves are the sole remaining superpower among mortal beings.
Humanity is actually in a relatively nascent stage.  The tribes scattered across a region of the continent ‘recently’ vacated by the elves; recently is something like 1000 years or more.  The three major human kingdoms have diverged into their own specialties, their cultures developed to reflect different worldviews.  The primary human kingdom the Ochra series follows in the J’in Empire, a samurai culture that is based heavily on Sengoku period Japan, with Chinese and Korean myth and culture woven in as well.  As this differs radically from the Euro-centric standard for most epic-high fantasy, it brings with it some unique idiosyncrasies: names are particularly foreign, yet this poses the problem of keeping names straight, particularly when most Asian cultures speak family name prior to given name.  Most readers are likely to also visualise against the backdrop of popular films or anime.  Films like The Last Samurai and 13 Assassins are actually rather good pieces to draw from, in that they at least tried to make things as culturally and historically accurate as possible; films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a plethora of anime tend to stray a little too far into the fantastical for my taste (I must admit I absolutely adore the imagery and action sequences from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Population:  These numbers are something I’ve had to put some research into.  Taking a cue into the middle ages of Europe, a continental region the size in question for my manuscript could handle a population of several millions.  The actual figures are neither directly pertinent not required for the storyline.  That said, as background information it provides a baseline to work from.  I found this site, which boils down demography in a fantasy setting into a rather intuitive system that works for me.  It is geared towards a Game Master developing his Role-Playing Game setting, yet the parallels remain – author or GM, you’re both telling a story.
In the European Middle Ages, the population was curbed for some time by Viking, Arab and Slavic or Magyar expansions.  In my case, the elves vacated the lands but oversaw the ‘lesser’ species development.  This over watch would also have to include some form of protection from the predations of the surviving rival factions of the elves, namely the goblins and orcs.  I’ve used this as a bit of a cheat to help along the development of humanity in a slightly compressed time span.  Once the human tribes had diverged into their own distinct paths with regions of their own, the elves withdrew to a supervisory role of sorts.
Source of Magic:  Another issue worthy of thought, particularly if it plays a significant role in your story.  In my case I’ve both mages/sorcerers, as well as clerics/priests.  The former draw their powers from the underlying current of energy that they alone are able to recognize, tap into and mold to their spell forms and abilities.  Mages use spell forms and rituals to carefully construct the conduit that the power gets siphoned through with predictable results.  Sorcerers on the other hand draw the power into themselves, their instinctual drive the conduit for the power, which makes their magic less predictable but easier to access.  Priests and clerics are largely the exact same thing, just a question of title, yet both draw their powers from the grace of their gods.  Since the cataclysm ended, the gods were limited in their direct influence.  Their latent power could be drawn upon if a cleric met the phantom presence’s.... entry requirements, for lack of a better term.
Again, none of this is essential to the actual story, yet it creates a good baseline and reference point for the plot whenever things seem to be drawing off course and into territory I’ve not explored.  A quick reference back to my notes and more times than not, I’ve got a place to go from, or a new plot point to exploit.

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